Health Care Industry Proves Slow to Get on Info Highway

Article excerpt

SEATTLE _ A woman, at home in front of the family's multimedia screen, calls up a medical clinic to ask about her child's allergic reaction.

A nurse appears on the screen, interviews the mother and child about symptoms, disappears briefly from the screen and then returns. The physician has confirmed the recommended treatment and a prescription order is filled.

The nurse also notes that the woman's records indicate she's overdue for a mammogram. An appointment is scheduled.

A physician encounters a man in a parking lot suffering from severe chest pains. He pulls a cellular phone and lap-top computer from his car and _ with the man's permission and access code _ checks his medical history, alerts the man's physician and begins administering emergency aid on the scene.

These are just two visions of health care on the information highway. Though technically possible today, they remain just visions of the future largely because the health care industry's use of information technology lags far behind what exists today in banking, transportation and telecommunications.

For example, if the health care industry ran the television networks, your home would need a TV set for every station and a different electrical socket for each set.

"You'd need an NBC set, a CBS set or five hundred sets to watch all of those cable shows," said Rick Rubin, president of the non-profit Foundation for Health Care Quality, a Seattle-based consortium of large employers, insurers, health care provider organizations and others working to build a health care on-ramp to the information highway.

Health care remains a fragmented landscape of proprietary systems of information with little or no common link, he said.

"That's one of the problems we're trying to solve," Rubin said.

The solution, though years away, could someday allow consumers to do their own research when comparing health plans, shopping for a family doctor or considering elective surgery.

"Roughly 80 percent of what health care professionals do is move information," said Mark Wheeler, a physician and senior vice-president at PHAMIS Inc., a Seattle-based company that develops automated health information systems.

Technology is not the real barrier to transforming that activity from paper to a seamless electronic network, Wheeler said. The difficulty is the inertia involved in trying to change human behavior and a lack of uniform standards for health care information. …